Afghan staff in peril, aid agencies wrestle security versus mission


US soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hundreds of Western nationals and Afghan workers have been flown to safety since the Taliban reasserted control over the country. Yet still unprotected, and in hiding, are untold numbers of Afghans who tried to build a fledgling democracy, many aid workers among them: AP Photo/Shekib Rahmani

As the Taliban push into Kabul loomed close last week, the director of an international aid agency told a gathering of senior staff that expat personnel would be evacuated if the militants gained control, but their Afghan colleagues would not be going with them. Their jobs could also not be guaranteed.

In an emailed letter seen by The Citizen, Afghan personnel pleaded with their head office in Paris to also be evacuated. Former and serving expat staff supported them with an online petition: “It is imperative that we do not abandon them now in the face of this crisis.”

The agency responded with an assurance that a request would be made to the French government to evacuate the Afghan staff. But the letter also stated that the agency was trying to strike a balance between the safety concerns of local personnel, and the desire to keep them in place to return to work once it was safe to do so.

“We raised a lot of concern about our safety,” said one senior Afghan aid worker with the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity and asked the organisation not be named. “One person who worked with the organisation for more than 15 years asked questions regarding the future of his family’s safety.”

Many aid agencies have promised to “stay and deliver” in Afghanistan – a common refrain for those accustomed to operating in high-risk areas. But the declaration obscures a confronting choice. There are acute concerns for the safety of local workers due to their links to western aid programs. But if agencies succeed in assisting their evacuation, who will be left to maintain crucial humanitarian programs in an environment of escalating need?

“I want to stay to support the people that need humanitarian aid, but if I do my family will lose their freedom,” said an Afghan employee of another global aid organisation which has provided workers with referral letters to apply for visas to evacuate.

Speaking from Kabul, the senior staff member working for the French aid organisation said: “For the female staff, it’s quite difficult. I received a call from my female staff the other day and they were crying.

“The Taliban are issuing letters saying it’s ok for some programs to operate, but the reality in the field is very different.”

Afghanistan is recognised as the most dangerous place in the world to be an aid worker, with many workers living in guarded compounds and travelling via armoured cars. In 2020, 276 aid workers suffered major violent attacks and 108 were killed in Afghanistan, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.

The Citizen asked the UN office in Afghanistan how many of its expat staff were evacuated, and if any Afghan staff had been evacuated. It said it couldn’t answer for security reasons.

Foreign aid forms the backbone of Afghanistan’s economy, funding its institutions by about 75 per cent. But some donors are considering or have already cut payments until they’re certain what type of government the Taliban will form, threatening the jobs of Afghan aid workers and the ability to respond to a dire humanitarian crisis.

The German government announced last week it would stop its foreign aid payments if the Taliban imposed Sharia Law, while the International Monetary Fund has suspended Afghanistan’s accounts due to a lack of clarity over the recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government.

“A major concern is that donor sanctions and cutting funding will mean people will lose these jobs and penalise the poor,” said Dr Nemat Bizhan, a lecturer at ANU’s Development Policy Centre who contributed to development programs and reforms that helped Afghanistan’s recovery when the Taliban fell in 2001.

“Before the Taliban was in control I would make the case that we need to put more money into the government, but now is the time to put more money outside the government and directly to NGOs.”

A senior female Afghan aid worker specialising in education for a national Afghanistan agency partly funded by the UN said she was determined to stay. Since the Taliban took control, she had sent multiple emails to Western embassies requesting security for her female colleagues, but has not received a reply.

The organisation had gained approval from the Taliban to continue its education programs, but the Taliban was still deliberating over whether to approve a program that supports women empowerment.

Asked if she was hopeful this meant the Taliban would hold its promise to allow women to work and access education, she said no.

The aid worker pointed to the fact that for the past year she had managed an education program in a province that was already under Taliban control and they refused to allow girls above 10 to enrol.

“You cannot trust what they say because what is happening in areas controlled by the Taliban shows us the truth,” said the aid worker, who cannot be named for her security.

Most concerning was how the Taliban’s ideology might tear down gains made in gender equity, the aid worker said. In 2001, only 50,000 girls were enrolled in school, this figure increased to 2.5 million girls by 2017, according to figures by CARE.

Reflecting on all that could be lost after 20 years of fighting for a renewed Afghanistan, the female aid worker sobbed over the phone.

“If the international community does not trust the Taliban government and they stop sending aid, who will be affected is not the Taliban, but the people.”

A version of this story was co-published with Crikey